10 Survival Tips for Americans in Austria

Moving to another country is never easy. While it is ultimately sure to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, you are bound to encounter some surprising cultural differences and bumps along the way.  These tips are meant to (humorously) help my fellow-Americans to deal with the slight culture shock of living in the wonderful land of Alps, schnitzel, lederhosen and schnapps: 

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1. When someone asks “How are you?” say “Thank you.” And nothing else.

I’ve asked many a coworker in Salzburg how they are doing. A normal question, in my American mind. When posing this inquiry into their well-being, I expect to hear a normal “good”, “fine”, “hanging in there”, etc.  In Austria, alas, these expectations go unanswered, with a conversation going something like this:

Me: How are you, Sabine?

Sabine: Thank you.

Me: Oh. (awkward silence)

To this day, I still don’t know how many of my friends and colleagues in Austria are faring. At least they are polite.

2. Get in people’s personal space. And stay there.

Austrians stand about a half a foot closer to each other than we do in America. If you try to back away, they will just come closer again. And again. And again. So you might as well just stay there, ignoring the urge to run for the door.

3. Invite people to come to your birthday dinner with caution.

If it is your birthday in Austria,  your friends will not take you out for dinner and buy you food and drinks. Instead of treating you, the honored birthday girl or boy, showering you with free schnitzel and schnaps, the “kind friends and family” expect you to pay for them and the rest of your birthday guests. And yet Austria is one of the happiest countries in the world…

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4. Never, ever go shoeless inside. 

When you go into a stranger’s house, they will expect you to take your shoes off (as they don’t want street dirt in their house – even students are required to wear slippers at school). However, they would never expect you to be entirely shoeless. At the door, most Austrians have a basket of slippers (house shoes) for this very occasion.  I sometimes went around my own apartment wearing just socks, and my Austrian roommate commented “Oh yes, I notice you do that sometimes. Interesting.”

5. Awkward silence? No problem!

Austrians don’t care about the awkward silence. Apparently this is an American thing. Many a conversation in Austria just comes to a halt and no one will say anything for a never-ending, time-standing-still minute. This usually results in me babbling in German about totally unimportant, usually embarrassing things to stop my feelings of discomfort. Which then results in another awkward silence when no one knows how to respond to what I said.

6. Open the windows. All the windows. And the colder it is outside, the better.

Austrians love fresh air. Great, who doesn’t? But they love fresh air when its -20 degrees outside with three feet of snow on the ground. No need for a warm, cozy apartment with a fire in the fireplace – the air is much too stuffy. How Americans can leave windows closed in the depths of an icy winter, they simply cannot understand.

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7. Do not casually inquire about a person’s life.

In America, when we see a person we’ve lost touch with over the years, we get excited to see them and say “Hey! How’s life?” We then proceed to tell them about the main aspects of our life from the last few years. Case in point: I was at the baseball game with my Austrian now-husband. I ran into a girl who I had known at my university a few years before, and the following conversation ensued:

Me: “Hey! How’s life?!

Her: “Oh, it’s good, I just graduated. I’m going to Florida next week and will be going to grad school to be an eye doctor in the fall. How’s life for you?”

Me: “Oh, it’s good. I just got my Masters in German, am also going on vacation next week, and am moving back to Austria in August. I’m going to be teaching English there.”

Her: “Cool, good to see you!”

Me: “You too!”

I turned to my Austrian husband to see if he was ready to keep walking, only to see him standing there, shocked, with his mouth wide open. “What?” I asked. “You guys just told each other about your whole lives in two minutes.” Me: “So?” Him: “That’s really strange.”

Two months later in Austria, I saw why this was strange for him. He ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in two years. They saw each other, and said “Hi.” “Hi.” (At this point, I was all ready for the normal “How’s life?” question).

My husband: The weather’s horrible.

His friend: Yes, it is.

My husband: Well, see you later.

Friend: Bye.

Me: Um, what??? Don’t you want to know how his life is?

Husband: No, not really.

Well, ok then.

8. Greet the room.

I always thought Americans were polite, but in some ways, Austrians have got us beat. In any waiting room, be it a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office, etc., when a new person enters into the waiting area, she does not simply sit down and wait her turn, staring at her cell phone or reading a book. Instead, as soon as she enters, she greets the entire room, belting out a hearty “Grüß Gott!” (Austrian form of hello) to her fellow waiters. Everyone replies to this newcomer with their own enthused “Grüß Gott!”, happy to have the monotony of waiting broken up by a new person. And then this same phenomenon occurs again later. Instead of simply checking out and going on their way, the Austrian patient, finished with her appointment, calls out to the entire room “Auf wiederschauen” (goodbye), as if they were her own friends and she must take her leave of them. Although I find this very nice, it left me quite confused the first few times, wondering if I knew the strangers saying hello to me.

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9. Know how to waltz.

Most Austrians can waltz, which I think is wonderful. However, since they all grow up learning how to dance, they think that everyone in the world has this “basic” skill. Case in point: I was once at a wedding in the countryside around Salzburg when the song “YMCA” came on. All ready to go with my groovy alphabetic arm movements, I moved on to the dance floor, only to realize that people were waltzing to this 1970’s hit! Sensing my awkwardness, a middle-age Austrian man who I had perhaps spoken to once came over to take me for his dancing partner. Mortified, I tried my best to keep up with his 1-2-3, 1-2-3 foot movements (all while not really believing I was waltzing to the YMCA song). I thought I did semi-decent job, but I was sadly mistaken. The next day, an e-mail showed up in my inbox from my Austrian dancing partner, complete with a  lengthy Youtube video outlining the proper way to waltz. Point taken.

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10. Go to the grocery store prepared for battle. 

You never realize how spoiled we are in America that we have someone who bags our groceries for us. In Austria, you, and you alone, are responsible for this daunting task. Can it really be that difficult, you ask? Well, picture this. You have a week’s worth of groceries. One environmentally friendly grocery bag. There are 6 impatient real-life Austrians waiting in line behind you. The cashier then rings up your groceries at a crazy pace, faster than humanly possible. You have just finagled the oddly shaped egg carton into your bag while your other rung-up groceries are flying toward you at lightning speed, one after the other, when Josef, the friendly cashier, says “30 euro 33 cent”. You then have to STOP putting your eggs in the bag, wasting valuable time to pull your wallet out of the depths of your purse. The clock is ticking as you dig for the correct coins, and then keep trying to put the eggs and milk in the bag before Josef can give you your change. But Josef is an experienced cashier, and before you can put your milk away, he is trying to put the change in your hand. While you appreciate getting money back, you are stressed out about having to completely stop putting your fruit in the bag in order to put the coins in your wallet. Only three items out of 15 are in your bag, and the rest are still all over the counter. Without warning,  the next person’s eggs, milk, cereal, bread start flying on top of your groceries, and the Austrian behind you is coming into your personal space as they so like to do. It’s a challenge that simply can’t be overcome.

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After first writing these tips a few years ago, I have since moved back to America and miss Austria greatly – the mountains, the slower pace of life, the people, the food, the countless outdoor opportunities, and yes, even these little cultural differences that actually grew on me over the years (I, too, now open the windows in the winter, which is a big relief to my Austrian husband). Although we are different, it is our differences that make the world interesting, and visiting another country opens up our eyes to our own culture, allowing us to learn more about ourselves and the world. Vielen Dank, Austria, for all you have given me. Bis bald!

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